Ahh, calorie counting. Nothing divides opinion in the world of nutrition quite like it.
On one hand you have the food ‘mathematicians’ who track and record every morsel of food that goes into their mouth.On the other, you have the food ‘purists,’ who consider calorie counting to be pointless, inaccurate and way too restrictive.
So, who’s right? Are either group right?
The title of this article, ‘why I don’t count calories,’ means that you probably already know my position on calorie counting. But just because I personally don’t count calories doesn’t mean that it’s wrong. It also doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t. I’ve seen too many people have great success with calorie counting to try and tell you that it doesn’t work. Calorie counting does work, and for many people, it works very well.
There are times when calorie counting is useful, and some groups of people that can really benefit from counting calories. I’ll get on to those later. But there are also groups of people that would probably be better off putting away the calorie counter altogether.
So should YOU count calories? I’ll let you decide…
Calorie Counting Theory
The theory behind calorie counting is pretty simple.
You work out the total number of calories, protein, fat and carbs you need to eat each day. You then track your food intake, with the aim to reach your targets by the time the day is out.
This sounds easy - and it would be, providing that all food came with a convenient nutrition label telling you the full and precise nutritional composition. This isn’t going to happen any time soon, especially if you’re eating a diet made up predominantly of whole foods (which you should be).
So, in order for calorie counting to really be accurate, a lot of weighing and measuring of food is required. Which is fine, if you have the time and patience to be weighing all of your food before you cook it. (I don’t).
Personally, I find it unnecessarily restrictive to have to weigh my sweet potato before I put it in the oven, or count out my pumpkin seeds before I throw them on my salad. I know these are healthy foods, and I can easily eyeball how much of a portion works for me. So I prefer not to get obsessive about the numbers and spend unnecessary time weighing and tracking everything going in to my meal.
Our time is valuable. I’d rather spend the 20 - 30 minutes each day I would have to dedicate to weighing and tracking my food with friends, at the gym, walking my dog or reading. If it means I’m a little off my calories on any given day, then so be it.
If you’re happy to dedicate the time, that’s cool. But what happens when you go out to eat?
You can’t exactly go into the restaurant kitchen and ask for a macronutrient breakdown of your food before they serve it. At the very best, you can take a wild guess.
This is when, as soon as you step out of the safety net of your own kitchen, calorie counting starts to fall down. Suddenly, enjoyable things like going out for dinner with friends start to become a difficult and stressful task. Either that, or you become that guy who brings his own scales to the restaurant – which I don’t think you want to be.
Macros vs. Micros
My biggest problem with calorie counting is that it focuses entirely on the macronutrient value of the food. That’s the amount of protein, carbohydrate and fat that it contains.
So, for the laws of calorie counting to be true, 30 grams of fat from a Krispy Kreme doughnut is exactly the same as 30 grams of fat from an organic avocado.
What this theory disregards is the true nutritional value of the food we are eating. That’s the vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phytonutrients and enzymes that are essential for good health.
When we divert too much of our focus to the numbers, we lose sight of the most important thing when it comes to nutrition: food quality and nutrient density. Sure, you’re counting calories, but are you counting colours?
Have you eaten something blue, red, purple, green, and orange today? M & Ms don’t count. Sure, it fits your macros, but does it fit your micros, too?
That’s micros meaning micronutrients. There’s over 40 that are essential to our health, so why are we just focusing on protein, carbs and fat?
I know plenty of people that have lost weight fast on low calorie diets, crappy meal replacement shakes and chemical laden fat free snack bars. Yet every time, I’ve seen that weight loss grind to a screeching halt because that same nutrient sparse, inflammatory diet has screwed up their hormones, tanked their adrenal glands and broken their metabolism.
A calorie vs. a calorie
I see tons of calorie controlled diets blacklisting exceptionally healthy foods simply because they’re high in calories.
For instance, an avid calorie counter will look at a handful of macadamia nuts as 203 calories and 21 grams of fat. This may be considered as ‘high’, but it doesn’t take into account the fact that almost all of this fat comes in the form of oleic acid, a fatty acid that is extremely beneficial for heart and brain health. Nor does it consider the high levels of thiamine or manganese that these nuts contain.
It’d be quite easy to remove macadamia nuts from your diet completely based on the calorific value alone. But you’d then be losing out on all the fantastic health benefits that they offer, too.
Not to mention, you’d be taking away one of life’s greatest pleasures. If you’ve never tried roasted, salted macadamia nuts dipped in melted dark chocolate you can thank me later.
Don’t get me wrong: this isn’t a free pass to go out and eat your bodyweight in macadamia nuts. But you don’t need to count calories to know that they’re a high calorie food, and should therefore be eaten in moderation.
Numbers vs. Nutrition
I strongly believe that 99% of the everyday population would be happier and healthier by paying less attention to the caloric value of the food they’re eating, and more attention to the nutritional value.
The bottom line is, you can ‘hit your macros’ eating pop tarts, pizza and ice cream every day. You can also achieve the very same macros eating organic fruits and vegetables, lean protein, complex carbohydrates and healthy fat. Which do you think is going to yield better results, in the long run?
Food or Fuel
One final thing I want you to consider on the subject of calorie counting is your own personal relationship with food.
A big part of my work is to encourage people to have a healthy relationship with food, which means seeing it as more than just numbers on a calculator. When you look at food as purely mathematics, I believe you’re taking away the majority of the pleasure and freedom that should come with eating good, wholesome, nourishing food.
You can eat extremely healthy without having to count calories. You can hit your fitness goals without having to count calories. And freeing yourself from the confinements of calorie counting means you can go out for dinner with friends, order what you want from the menu, and not lose any sleep worrying about the amount of carbs or fat in contains.
You just wake up the next day, make yourself a healthy breakfast and get on with your life. Easy.
Then, on Sunday, you go round to your mum’s house for an epic roast dinner, without having to ask her to weigh the potatoes before she cooks them. You eat until your body tells you it’s satisfied, not until you hit your targets on My Fitness Pal.
So what if you’ve gone slightly over your allotted carbohydrates that day? I promise you it’s not going to make one iota of difference in the long run.
When calorie counting can be useful
But before you throw away your calorie calculator for good, know that there are some people that can certainly benefit from calorie calculating.
Whilst I don’t think calorie counting is a sustainable approach for the long term, you can certainly benefit from counting calories if you fall into one of these three categories:
You are an elite athlete:
With high level performance goals that require great attention to detail when it comes to your nutrition. Tracking your calories can be an efficient way to make sure you are fuelling your body correctly. However, this is likely to be the job of your coach, rather than something you have to worry about yourself.
You want to improve your nutrition knowledge:
If you feel you want to know more about nutrition, tracking calories can be a good way to get your head around the difference between proteins, carbs and fats, whilst at the same time learning how much fuel your body needs to perform at it’s best. Once you’ve got this locked in, you can start to back away from the calorie calculator and learn to eat intuitively.
You’ve hit a plateau:
Have you hit a plateau when it comes to weight loss or muscle building? If you have specific fitness goals that you are working towards but feel you are not making any progress, tracking your calories for a couple of weeks can be a good way to make sure you are on track. Once you’ve adjusted your food intake to suit your needs, you can start to step away from the calorie counting.
Why I do not count calories
Personally I don’t fall into any of these three categories, so don’t currently track calories.
I'm happy with my body composition. I feel in great shape physically and mentally. I’m making progress in my fitness goals and I have a good understanding of nutrition. Right now calorie counting isn’t productive for me, so I don’t do it. Could this change in the future? Absolutely.
So, should YOU count calories? I’ll let you decide….
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